Saturday, February 28, 2009

Alinea - Courses 19-24

19. Sweet Potato - bourbon, brown sugar, smoldering cinnamon

Picture from Flickr (thefleeg)

The elements of a sweet potato pie were skewered on a smoldering cinnamon stick, and deep-fried like tempura. Although Michelle tasted a bit of baking soda or baking powder in hers, this was a tasty bite. I wasn't able to taste much sweet potato, but I suppose that's not unlike real sweet potato pie. Warm, crispy, and comforting, just like (somebody's) mom used to make it. Kinda.

20. Bubble Gum - long pepper, hibiscus, creme fraiche

Picture from Flickr (jgiacomoni)

There were three elements inside a tube: bubble gum flavoured tapioca, creme fraiche, and hibiscus gelatin. Nope, no actual gum. We were instructed to suck the whole mix into our mouths, and when we did it felt and sounded quite silly in a good way. Although it was quite sweet, this dish was pretty light and playfully contrasted different textures. Needless to say, this is the best version of bubble gum flavor (think bubble gum fluoride) we've ever had.

21. Spice Cake - persimmon, rum, carrot

Picture from Flickr (jgiacomoni)

Here they placed the plate on top of an inflated pillow, which caused the pillow to slowly deflate, releasing aromas of brown spices (cinnamon, nutmeg). The dish itself contained a lot of components: chunks of spice cake, dried crunchy spice cake, dried persimmon, tip of a carrot, and an ice cream (possibly caramel flavored). There was also a sphere of encapsulated rum (like the butter in the king crab dish). Michelle wasn't a big fan of the texture of the persimmon (it was kind of gooey), but she was really pleased that they used what she thinks is the best part of the carrot - the inner core. All of the elements were very well-made and tasted good together or alone.

22. Mustard - passion fruit, allspice, soy

Picture from Flickr (jgiacomoni)

On a small flat spoon was a disk of dijon mustard sorbet topped with passion fruit and freeze-dried soy. The notion of a Dijon sorbet (that's not a typo) sounded a bit strange, but the combination of mustard and passion fruit was actually a pretty interesting. After a few seconds , the mustard flavor became more intense and was a nice, sharp wake up call on the tongue.

23. Chocolate - prune, olive, pine

Picture from Flickr (jgiacomoni)

The main component of this dish was a sheet of Valrhona dark chocolate ganache, which was served with a variety of accompaniments: pine ice cream, prunes, drops of prune puree, dried olives, cocoa nibs, and pine-nut soup. There was also a mysterious cream underneath the sheet of chocolate that they didn't describe. The pine ice cream was another element that sounded strange but actually tasted quite good, and it worked nicely with the prune and chocolate. Otherwise, there was a bit too much going on, so this wasn't a completely successful dessert.

Birthday "Cake"

Photo from Flickr (moonrat42)

Michelle had told the restaurant that we were celebrating my 30th birthday, so they brought a small surprise just for me, which at first was a chocolate dome on a small dish. Then the server poured a hot vanilla cream onto the chocolate, melting and opening the dome revealing the cake (which was more like a cookie) and some vanilla ice cream. The elements were simple, but the presentation was quite neat, and it was a nice addition.

24. Dry Caramel - salt

Picture from Flickr (jgiacomoni)

For the last course, we were served a powdered caramel in a shot glass and instructed to shoot all of the caramel and hold it on our tongue for a few seconds. What resulted was a really interesting transformation into a chewy caramel. There was some salt sprinkled into the shot glass, which added a nice dimension to the caramel. A great ending to a fantastic meal.


That's it's, folks! Thanks for following along on our lengthy, tasty journey. If you're ever in Chicago for a visit, and you want to thank us for putting you up, I think you know what to do. :)

Alinea - Courses 13-18

13. Yuba - shrimp, miso, togarashi

Picture from Flickr (jgiacomoni)

In this dish, a stick of fried yuba (tofu skin) served as an edible utensil. Gulf shrimp was wrapped around the yuba, and everything was seasoned by light pepper flake (togarashi), some citrus, black and white sesame. The stick of yuba was served standing in a small dish containing a miso mayonnaise dipping sauce. This was quite a neat construction delivering a familiar-tasting yuba in a different format. The shrimp and crispy yuba provided a nice contrast in textures.

14. Alaskan King Crab - popcorn, mango, curry

Picture from Flickr (jgiacomoni)

This was a relatively large course that was described by the server as being inspired by butter, so it was quite rich (maybe even too rich). The left and right sections contained Alaskan king crab (Michelle swears hers was lobster, which has also been used in this dish), fresh corn, corn tortilla chips, pieces of popcorn, and some curry. On one side, there was a sphere (which looks like an egg yolk in the picture) that was self-encased butter (melted butter held within a membrane), and on the other were some thin pieces of toasted coconut. In the middle of the dish, there was a cube of mango gelee and a citrus component that provided an acid counterpoint. Across the whole dish was a strip of popcorn puree, and the dish was served with coconut toast.

The combination of corn (in many forms), crab, and curry worked really nicely, and the crab (or lobster) was well cooked. The popcorn puree was a neat idea, but we couldn't really tell that it was made of popcorn. It ended up being kind of superfluous, just an extra, creamy layer that wasn't particularly notable.

15. Iberico Ham - salsify, hazelnut, smoked paprika

Picture from Flickr (jgiacomoni)

Sometime after the wagyu beef course (with the aromatic vase), they brought a new centerpiece that displayed slices of Iberico ham frozen in liquid nitrogen hanging from a stand. When it was time to serve this course, they brought a plate with roasted salsify over an intense hazelnut puree. The gently draped the ham (which has now thawed) over the other components, and drizzled everything with a smoked paprika vinaigrette. As a final touch, they garnished the ham with a single sprig of tiny oregano.

Picture from Flickr (jgiacomoni)

The warm plate, along with the salsify and hazelnut, slightly melted the ham, giving it a very pleasant texture. This was a relatively simple course, but everything worked together to showcase the ham, which was really quite delicious.

16. Lamb - lemon, fennel, coffee aroma

Picture from Flickr (Consumatron)

This dish was served on a long plate stretching away from us (instead of side to side). At the top of the plate was a dish containing a hot rock warming coffee and fennel seeds to produce an aroma. Below, there were a number of small pieces of lamb (different cuts) along with a variety of accompaniments. From top to bottom:

- A braised, fattier chunk of lamb (perhaps shank or shoulder)
- Tongue and poached fennel
- A coffee sauce with fennel foam
- A leaner cut (possibly tenderloin) with lemon gel
- Sweetbread with a raisin-coffee leather

Of the different lamb preparations, Michelle's favorite was the tongue, while I preferred the sweetbread. Unfortunately, we felt this was the weakest of the larger courses (possibly the weakest overall). It doesn't help that I'm not a big fan of either lamb or coffee, but this was the one course where all the distinct components were so separated, and it felt too deconstructed.

17. Black Truffle - explosion, romaine, parmesan

Picture from LTHForum (ronnie_suburban)

This is probably Chef Achatz' signature dish, something he has been serving since his previous restaurant. The ravioli contained a molten black truffle broth, similar to a shanghai soup dumpling, and was finished with cooked romaine (which added color but not much flavor), black truffle, and parmesan. One word: delicious. I could pop dozens of these like candy. Michelle's one word: ohmagodummaummayeahcanihaveanother?

18. Chestnut - quince, chocolate, baked potato

Picture from Flickr (jgiacomoni)

At this point, we started transitioning to dessert courses with what the server described as a savory parfait. The components were brought to the table layered inside a clear tube, which was then removed, allowing everything to mix.
Photo from Flickr (jgiacomoni)

There was a mix of savory and sweet components: a very savory baked potato ice cream (which Michelle thought was too salty, but I thought was really good), potato chips, sweet and sour chestnut, chestnut puree, and cookie pieces. All of the individual components were quite good, but there was maybe too much going on. We appreciated that they were trying to bridge savory and sweet, but the combination wasn't completely successful.

Around this time, we were also served the last part of bread service, an apricot and molasses cookie.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Alinea - Courses 7-12

7. Six Flavors - frozen

This course was a very fun palate cleanser and quiz: 6 teeny balls of frozen concentrated flavors on a pin. We were told to let them melt on our tongue (they were frozen together in one piece) and to try to detect what they were, which came first, etc. The colors were indicative of the ingredients, and you might guess that the 6 balls represented the 6 tastes. This was quite a fun and creative break, and we got most of them with some prompting from the server. We both had different experiences, probably due to where we had placed it on our tongues, etc. I found the strongest flavor to be the umami taste, and neither of us discerned the spicy one. Amazingly, the chef recovered from tongue cancer last year (you could imagine how devastated he must have been initially). As a result of his treatment, he temporarily lost his sense of taste, and tastes reportedly came back one by one (for a while, he could only taste sweet). We thought this course might have been inspired by his recovery and subsequent testing of his taste buds. In hindsight, we really wish we had asked for another serving so we could try it again (next time, next time...)

Clockwise, from the top left (we think...): mango (sweet), overbrewed matcha green tea (bitter), yuzu (sour), seaweed (salty), cayenne (spicy), and dashi (umami).

Photo from Flickr (jgiacomoni)

8. Wagyu Beef - powdered A-1, potato, chips

This was both of our first tastes of wagyu beef. As you can tell (that's not our picture, but a good representative), there was a lot of marbling (let's call a spade a spade... the meat is mad fatty). It came on a plate alongside small piles of salt and pepper. At the top of the photo, you'll note the small, clear packet, that held powdered A-1 sauce. The ingredients comprised anchovy, tamarind, raisin, and clove. It was nice that we could try to wagyu just as is, and then adjust the seasoning as we saw fit. I (Michelle) have just started to eat steak again (after swearing off of red meat in junior high), and this was so rich I was quite glad the portion was small. (In the photo, there are two pieces, but we only had one.) To complete the "meat and potatoes" theme, the beef was accompanied by a cube of potato custard encrusted in potato chips. This was creamy, salty, and utterly delicious.

Photo from Flickr (consumatron)

Earlier in the meal, the servers had brought out a "centerpiece" which was a small black vase. We could tell it had dry ice in it because some frost formed on the outside of it. When the wagyu was brought out, they also poured some hot water in the vase. The white smoke that came pouring out was a nice visual effect, but the real purpose of it was revealed when it hit our nostrils. Strong scents of rosemary and beef (rendered beef fat) perfectly complimented the wagyu. Dinner and a show!

Photo from Flickr (consumatron)

This course was served with a knotted "dinner roll."

9. Yogurt - pomegranate, cassia
10. Bacon - butterscotch, apple, thyme
11. Transparency - raspberry, rose petal, yogurt

Next we were presented with 3 individual courses served simultaneously, which we tackled in the order suggested by the server. We started with a 'shot' of yogurt, which was actually a ball of thin sweet yogurt encased in a yogurt shell (with a texture similar to the chocolate ice cream topping that turns into a shell), floating in a pomegranate juice. 'Cassia' was also included but we aren't really sure what that is/was. This was nice and light, and made us wonder how the yogurt ball is made. We were sure to keep our mouths closed for this one!

Photo from Flickr (jgiacomoni)

Next was a thin, crisp-chewy piece of bacon hanging from a metal trapeze contraption, with a drizzle of butterscotch and thin ribbons of dried apple. You can't really go wrong with these flavors together, and a lovely, delicate presentation doesn't hurt. At this point I asked the server about the serveware, as we found the pieces beautiful yet functional. He said that the metal pieces and some of the ceramics are designed by and made specifically for Alinea, a collaboration between the chef and this artist.

Photo from Flickr (Eric Rolph)

Lastly in this trio, was a glassy sheet of yogurt powder-dusted raspberry candy, held by yet another cool contraption (kind of a round 'clothespin'). The candy cracked when we bit into it, and melted quickly on the tongue. I liked how the sweet and savory bacon was bookended by two 'red' fruit flavors.

Photo: LTHforum (ronnie_suburban)

12. Hot potato - cold potato, black truffle, butter

The next course has been an Alinea staple, so it was one of the few that Brian knew about going into the meal. A small, round dish held a cold, creamy potato soup. A pin was threaded through a hole in the dish, and suspended on the point of the pin were small cubes of parmesan and butter, and a hot potato sphere topped with a large shaving of black truffle. We were instructed to pull the pin out "like a grenade," which introduced the hot potato to the cold potato. Downing it all in one slurp, it melded together in my mouth like a rich, creamy, earthy mushroom chowder. I loved the flavor, but after the potato and cauliflower custards that we had enjoyed earlier in the meal, I was a little disappointed that the potato sphere wasn't creamier (Brian thought it was just fine). However, the juxtaposition of temperatures was an interesting and creative touch.

Bottom line (and this would be reiterated later): black truffles rock.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Alinea - Courses 1-6

Alinea offers a wine pairing with their menus, but Michelle asked if they had any interesting non-alcoholic beverages, and we ordered the one option that was made in-house: a cherry soda flavored with thyme and balsamic. This sounds like an odd combination, but it was a really tasty and complex drink, lightly carbonated and quite savory with a strong thyme flavor. The server told us that this soda was made by the baker, who apparently experiments while he's waiting for the breads to bake (in the middle of the night). He also makes beer, which isn't served to the public.

Although the menu is primarily a surprise, they asked us if we had any dietary restrictions or allergies. We were more than happy to eat whatever they prepared, so we didn't make any requests. As we were waiting for the first course, Michelle mentioned that she hoped that we didn't get anything with a strong licorice flavor. So, it was kind of funny when they presented:

1. Char Roe - parsnip, licorice, ginger

Photo from Yelp (Vivian Y.)

Arctic char roe is lightly cured, and plated with 3 round drops (coconut cream, parsnip puree, maple-ginger gelee), parsley sauce, and licorice foam. This was a light starter, but with an interesting and complex mix of flavors. A good warmup for what was to come.

2. Lemongrass - oyster, sesame, yuzu

Photo from LTHForum (ronnie_suburban)

Alinea places a strong emphasis on aromas. In this case, lemongrass was both the aromatic and the serving utensil. Components included two types of seaweed (which even in this one bite were quite distinct), black sesame paste, and yuzu gelee. Michelle enjoyed her oyster, while mine was not that strong in flavor.

As if 24 courses weren't enough, we were also served a number of different house-made breads, with two butters (one from goat's milk, one from cow's milk made in-house). The first bread, a napa cabbage rye, tied in nicely with the next course.

3. Cauliflower - five coatings, three gels, cider

Photo from LTHForum (ronnie_suburban)

There were 5 cubes of cauliflower custard, each with a different crust. The gels were made with horseradish, vanilla, and possibly nutmeg (come on, we can't possibly remember all the details). Also, there were some crunchy extras: cauliflower florets (which I liked but Michelle didn't enjoy) and stalks. After it was brought to the table, the server poured a hot, creamy apple soup into the bowl. He told us that each coating was different, but he would only tell us two (smoked ham and caraway), and that we should be able to identify the others based on everything working with ham. Between the two of us, we were able to get the remaining three (white cheddar, onion, almond), which suitably impressed the server. This was a very complex dish, but all the flavors worked really nicely, and it ended up being our favorite course. It was a good mix of technique, whimsy, and taste.

4. Pear - olive oil, black pepper, eucalyptus

Photo from Flickr (jgiacomoni)

This was the first course that really showcased the emphasis the chef places on aroma and flavor going together. Though the actual dish was just one small bite, it was presented in a large white bowl that came to the table with its lid on. When the server removed the lid, we were bathed in the menthol-y smell of eucalyptus, which lined the bowl. Resting on a spoon above the eucalyptus was a drop of olive oil resting in a small morsel of pear, encased in a eucalyptus gelee. A sprinkle of black pepper added some bite and crunch. Brian tasted salt, as well. It melted on the tongue, and the aroma wafting up from the bowl really enhanced the taste of the gelee. (It did not, in case you're wondering, taste medicinal, but refreshing.)

5. Pork Belly - turnip, shiso, sudachi

Photo from Flickr (jgiacomoni)

For this course, we were each given a small bowl with a round bottom. The server instructed us not to put them down, as it would tip over if we did before removing the fork, which was resting in a little cutout. On the fork was a small piece of pork belly topped with paper thin slices of pickled turnip and kimchi turnip, and a cute little piece of micro-shiso leaf. The pork belly was very tender, and I thought there was a 'turnip gelee' - which was actually just the fat from the belly. The turnip slices offered a nice textural and acidic counterpoint to the pork. Neither the shiso nor kimchee flavors were very strong - mostly we came away with a greater appreciation for the unctuousness that is slow-and-low cooked pork belly (and really, we were pretty appreciative to begin with!) Underneath the fork was a foamy turnip soup with shiso and sudachi accents (the latter is a Japanese citrus fruit) - a warm, salty chaser.

6. Wild striped bass - chamomile, shellfish, celery

Photo from Flickr (jgiacomoni)

This was another rather complex dish with many components. The main ingredient was a small piece of perfectly cooked bass, covered with a shellfish mousse, draped in a 'sheet' of chamomile tea. Arranged on top of this was thin strips of mild-tasting celery (probably blanched), celery leaves, two different kinds of unidentified shellfish, saffron-flavored tapioca puffs, and a generous sprinkle of saffron threads. There were a lot of different textures (delicate fish, creamy mousse, chewy clam, crisp celery and crunchy tapioca) that played well together. The shellfish pieces, while adding a dimension of texture, didn't really bring any noticeable flavor to the dish. We quite liked the tapioca puffs, and thought the tea sheet was a really interesting, subtle flavor that combined well with the shellfish mousse to make an interesting sauce for the fish.

Served at the same time as the bass was a nice olive brioche roll.

Monday, February 23, 2009


We celebrated one of us becoming old with an amazing dinner at Alinea Saturday night. We had been looking forward to this event for quite some time (the reservation was made on December 1st), and we're happy to report it didn't disappoint. This meal set a new record for most expensive dinner, but there's no question that it was worth it. Fortunately, it was generously subsidized by our friends Angi, Nathan, Ben, and Erin, who gave us a gift certificate as a wedding present - thanks guys!

There are only two options at Alinea: a 12-course "Tasting" or a 24-course "Tour". Knowing that this would likely be our only visit, it was a no-brainer: go all out with the Tour. Most of the other diners in the room that we were in (which held 6 other tables) had the Tasting, so we spent a lot of time either trying to ignore their dishes (so we wouldn't be spoiled for ours) or trying to figure out the differences between their Tastings and our Tour.

So as you can imagine, it is no small feat to describe 24 courses in a way that does the meal justice, especially when each course comprised several ingredients/techniques/sensations. For that reason, we are going to break up our recap into several posts, so that we can try to wring out all the goodness that we remember (for your and our mutual benefit) and include pictures of each dish. (Hopefully. We do not generally take photos of food, so we'll try to cull good representations from the internet.)

To whet your appetite for the next few posts, here is the specially printed menu that we received at the end of the meal. (They described each course as it arrived, but we didn't see the full menu until the meal was over.)

The circle in the middle of each course name has many meanings, and helps to show the progression of the meal. The position of the circle denotes how savory (left) or sweet (right) the course was. The larger the circle, the larger the course (the smallest courses were just one bite). And the darker the circle, the more intense the flavor of that course.

SPOILER ALERT: If you are planning to go to Alinea yourself in the next 6 months or so, 1) lucky you!, and 2) you may not want to go any further with these posts. While we usually study up a fair bit before going to a new restaurant so we know what to order or expect, we purposely kept ourselves in the dark about Alinea, and that was a good thing. We didn't want our experiences to be tinted by having specific expectations or being overinformed about anything.

So, napkins on laps, forks at the ready, and awaaaaayyy we go!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Big 3-0 Deserves a Nice Dinner

Yesterday was Brian's 30th birthday (I am imagining him wincing right now, as he is oddly bothered by talk of age). We played it pretty low key, staying home and having brie and tomato on ciabatta, and apple crisp a la mode for dessert. On Saturday, we have plans for dinner at Alinea (about which we are very excited), and then we're having dinner with Donald on Sunday.

Though the weekend is going to be quite busy (we have plans with friends on Friday, too), I was feeling a little bad for not having anything going on for the actual birthday. Our upcoming meals won't be cheap, and we don't really do presents anymore (after 12.5 years of birthdays and holidays, you kind of run out of ideas!) so I was empty-handed. As luck would have it, though, the food forum that we peruse offered up a possibility.

We found out that a restaurant downtown (Lockwood, in the historic Palmer House Hilton) was offering free dinners to a few tables on Monday and Tuesday nights. To win one, you had to email the chef and tell him why you deserved to win. I emailed (we both did, actually) him on Monday morning, and got a call a few hours later. Chef Phillip said he liked my story, and that we had won! So I made a reservation for Tuesday evening.

Dinner was quite good; the contest had said it would be a 3 course meal, but these fine dining meals always turn into longer endeavours, and it was instead a 6 course meal with pretty small portions for each course. I won't embed photos, but here is the link to the chef's blog, which has photos of some of the food (our appetizer is in the very first post right now), the menu that we had (that another guest posted), and a photo of the beautiful lobby of the hotel.

Highlights were: a really lovely cauliflower puree with pieces of lobster. Light and creamy, and the lobster was perfectly cooked; wild boar wrapped in chicken mousse and prosciutto - the first time either of us has had boar, and it was really good. Tender and flavorful (but not gamey). Out of the two desserts, the best part was a peanut butter ice cream that was delicious with some accompanying crispy bacon (yep). All in all, it was a great way to celebrate a reluctant birthday boy's last night as a 29 year old :)

So, what helped us win this indulgence? Here's what I wrote to the chef. The contest said "In as few words as possible, let us know why it is we should select you to dine with us…"

          Are there still tables available? I would be so forever in your gracious debt
          if you could award me one, as it is my husband’s birthday on Wednesday
          (the big 3-0, the first since we got married last May). We have plans for next
          weekend, but I have wracked my brain and not been able to come up with
          something for us to do during the week that he will enjoy. You see, he is a
          bit...curmudgeonly. Old beyond his years, you might say, grumpy, and
          difficult to please. One of the few things that lights up his face, though, is
           good, delicious, tasty food – and perhaps even moreso when it’s *free*. The
          food in the pictures on your website look amazing, and it would buy me a
          million (fudgy, dark, chocolatey) brownie points if I could tell him that we are
          going to Lockwood on (the day before) his birthday, for free.

          Help a new wife out?

Not my best work, but good enough, apparently :)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Living on Cloud 9

Happy 9th Monthaversary!